7 strategies for when your mind has gone to mush

Too tired to sentences form? We know the feeling. Discover what to do when brain fade and exhaustion get the best of you.

Where can that fork have gone? Seriously, it’s not on the table… it’s not on the floor… I don’t remember putting it down… I wouldn’t have used it to scratch myself, because I do have some table manners. How can it just DISAPPEAR?
Oh… there it is… in my hand… where it was all along.
This happened to me the other night. It was a rather tragic reminder that I had been doing too much and that my brain had turned to mush (neuroscientists call this ‘cognitive fatigue’ but to preserve my faculties, I’m sticking with the far simpler term ‘mushy brain’).
Mushy brain is a terribly common malady that all inhabitants of the 21st century need to be wary of. Our poor, overworked minds were simply not designed for the level of hyperstimulation that we now constantly encounter.
Once upon a time we went to bed when it was dark, woke up when it was light and chased the odd woolly mammoth around in between. Life was gloriously simple.
We didn’t have to contend with back-to-back Zoom meetings, peak hour traffic or the complexities of the taxation system. We didn’t have social media, smartphones or 53 types of laundry detergent to choose from. We weren’t all multi-tasking maniacs, madly scrambling to get 38% of our stuff done before our eyelids finally gave out on us.
While 21st century humans have become great at listening to podcasts, whilst scrolling Instagram, whilst doing the vacuuming, we have become pretty terrible at listening to our bodies. The most common response to mushy brain is to ignore it. The second most common strategy is to have yet another coffee and push on.
Mushy brain is a sign that things aren’t right and it shouldn’t be ignored. It can happen when we have been working too hard, when we have been worrying too much or when we haven’t been getting the right nutrition or good enough sleep. It can be a sign that we are exhausted or becoming burnt out.
Mushy brain can be extremely dangerous. Hospital emergency rooms are full of people who have made mushy-brained mistakes. In the waiting room you will find exhausted parents with dropped babies, exhausted chefs with sliced fingers and exhausted motorists with air-bag blackened eyes. If you need help, just hope your doctor isn’t at the end of an epic shift and feeling mushy-brained themself.
Mushy brain doesn’t just make us terrible drivers and forgetful fork holders, it can also seriously affect our mood and the way we interact with others. When we are tired, we don’t have the mental energy to take advantage of the glorious abilities of our pre-frontal cortex. This wise part of the brain allows us to deal with subtlety and context, consider others’ feelings and make nuanced, rational decisions. Instead, we rely much more on our amygdala. The amygdala is far less concerned with subtlety and far more concerned with survival. It can make us far more reactive and far less pleasant to be around.
No human is a perfect productivity machine. We have biological limits and there comes a point where working longer hours, sleeping less and squeezing in more simply doesn’t work. Instead, it makes us more mushy-brained, more reactive and more prone to making poor decisions.
When we normalise working this way and feeling this way, we put ourselves at great risk of experiencing serious mental and physical health problems.
Don’t wait to make some changes.
For many people, it will take something such as a heart attack, chronic fatigue, a major depressive episode or a motor vehicle accident to re-assess things. None of these are at all fun, so rather than continue along this exhausting, unhealthy mushy-brained path, there are some simple but very important things you can do.
1. Do less

If you are exhausted and mushy-brained, it is a clear sign you are doing too much. Outsource, delegate, ask for help and carefully consider whether you have the capacity to take on that next thing. Work out what is manageable and make sure joy, rest and relaxation are non-negotiables, rather than being rudely shoved to the bottom of your to-do list. If this all seems extremely scary, it may also be time to stop measuring your self-worth by your level of productivity.

2. Do one thing at a time
Multi-tasking is really just divided attention and constantly switching back and forth puts a rather large strain on the brain. When we mindfully work on one thing at a time, we can concentrate far better and often enter a state of flow. Start by switching off distracting notifications, put away that second screen and allow your brain the luxury of focusing on just one thing.
3. Take time out for some mindfulness
Many people try mindfulness and think that they are “no good at it” because they notice so many thoughts running through their heads. This is in fact entirely normal and a very important part of practicing mindfulness. By practicing regularly, you can become better at observing thoughts and letting go of the many that aren’t helpful. Have a go now to discover how simply you can give your brain a break. Taking several mindful pauses throughout the day can help us lower cortisol levels, decrease stress and fight fatigue.
4. Take a break
Taking time away from regular responsibilities can be incredibly healing. Book in a break where you can rediscover rest, take time out for wonder and enjoy whatever else it is that fills you up. For some, a long weekend away may be enough to recharge the batteries, but for others it may take an extended time away to properly rest, recover and re-centre. Make sure to book in restorative breaks well ahead, so that you don’t get stuck on the treadmill of constant doing. And if it’s not possible to get away, have a proper staycation where you focus on rest, relaxation and doing the things you love.
5. Prioritise sleep
Sleep is an immensely precious commodity that can do wonders for your brain and body, so don’t sacrifice it for phone scrolling, Netflix or anything else which isn’t incredibly important to you. If possible, it is best to have a regular sleep routine and avoid screen time and stimulating substances before hitting the hay. If you perform shift work, you may need to take further measures to make sure you get enough of the good stuff.
If you are struggling to sleep, you will find a range of helpful guided mindfulness exercises in Session 9 of the Brain Food section or by downloading the Mindarma companion app. If sleeping troubles persist, be sure to see your doctor.
6. See your doctor
When you are super-busy and run down, seeing a doctor may seem like the last thing you have time for. There can however be many factors that can contribute to cognitive and physical fatigue, so it’s extremely worthwhile getting a check-up. Your GP can provide advice on how to restore your health and may also to refer you to a sleep specialist, dietician, psychologist or other specialist for additional support.
7. Ask for help
If you are already trying to do it all, don’t try to do it all yourself. Be brave enough to share that you are struggling and to ask for some help. Sometimes it will be beneficial to chat with a friend, a trusted colleague or a family member. Sometimes talking may not help -you may just need a hug and for someone else to clean the kitchen. Ask.
Because the pressures of 21st century living can be intense and relentless, the number 1 skill we must all learn is to become experts at self-care. Feeling mushy-brained, exhausted and overwhelmed is not the norm that you, I or anyone else wants. So, don’t make a habit of running yourself into the ground and if you notice you are struggling, make a change.